The other week, I was watching daytime TV (something I rarely do these days actually) and there was a panel discussion show on. I heard them mention a word that I’d never heard before – sadfishing. On the TV show they had a discussion about it and the impact it can have on young people’s mental health. Watching this got me intrigued to know more about this latest social media behaviour and understand exactly how and why it can have such a detrimental effect on the mental wellbeing of some individuals.
So what is sadfishing? Put simply, sadfishing involves an individual posting an emotional message on social media in an apparent attempt to attract sympathy or hook an audience. They often exaggerate their feelings in order to elicit a desired response. This term was coined at the beginning of 2019 in response to Kendall Jenner sharing her ‘raw story’ and ‘awful’ past skin experiences on Instagram in order to encourage people to buy Proactiv, a type of skin care product .
The phenomenon has also been used by other celebrities, with Justin Bieber recently telling his 119 million Instagram followers: “It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning when you are overwhelmed with your life.” These behaviours are starting to be copied by young people, with some of them being more open to sharing their sadness and mental health woes online.
But the uprise of this latest social media trend appears to be affecting the mental health of some individuals. Digital awareness UK recently released a report stating that the uprise in sadfishing is making it difficult for young people who are facing genuine mental health difficulties to seek online support . They surveyed 50,000 teenagers (aged 11 – 16) and they found that for most of them who had posted something regarding their mental wellbeing, they had faced being bullied as a consequence of their post. This lack of online support may leave young people feeling disappointed can subsequently make their emotional or mental health problems worse.
Sadfishing can also lead to a person becoming addicted, they crave the attention that they get from their actions . If they don’t get the attention they desired, this could have a detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing. Sadfishing behaviours may result in individuals oversharing information, which can leave them vulnerable, as sometimes complete strangers may be reading what they post. The digital awareness report  describes a case study where a teenage girl who, after posting about her depression online, was approached by a friend of a friend who shared their experiences in a supportive manner. But this relationship soon turned sour, and ended up with him pressuring her to send explicit pictures.
In response to the information above I thought I would conduct a short survey to see if sadfishing is something that is still currently happening and try to understand the effect it has on the individuals carrying out these behaviours. I created a survey which I posted on Reddit, the results of which are quite interesting. 82 people completed the survey, all of which were under 30 years old.
When struggling with mental wellbeing or feeling sad, 26% of people stated that they were likely to post about it on social media. 27% of people indicated that they had posted about their mental wellbeing on social media when they had been struggling in the past. Of these people, the diagram below highlights what kind of response they were expecting from posting such information online:
Compare this to the actual responses they state they have received:
When asked what effect sharing this information on social media had on their social media:
23% said it had a positive effect on their mental wellbeing.
27% said it had a negative effect on their mental wellbeing.
45% said it had neither a positive or negative effect on their mental wellbeing.
This survey is far from scientific quality, but I feel it outlines the role that social media plays as a method of communicating when an individual may be struggling with their mental health. I found it interesting that 1 in 5 of the people that posted information didn’t expect any response to it, almost like the process of posting was more of a cathartic release for them. I also feel the results show the difference in the effects of posting to social media on each individuals mental wellbeing. It would be interesting to investigate this further to understand what factors influence the effect of posts on mental wellbeing.